The Su­per­nat­u­ral Na­ture of Beauty

Special Focus - - Contents - Mo Yan

Who is con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful? The an­swer to this ques­tion has var­ied through­out the ages and from na­tion to na­tion. Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual has his or her own cri­te­rion—as the say­ing goes: “beauty is in the eye of the be­holder.”

As de­picted in The Duke’s Bride, a poem recorded in The Book of Songs, the old­est ex­ist­ing col­lec­tion of Chi­nese po­etry dat­ing from the 11th to 7th cen­turies BC, “Her fin­gers are soft like blades of a reed. Her skin is ten­der like con­gealed lard. Her neck is slen­der like the larva of the longhorn bee­tle. Her teeth are tidy like rows of melon seeds. Her fore­head is broad like that of a drag­on­fly and her brows arch like a moth’s feel­ers.”

The fol­low­ing lines are “Dark and white are her whis­per­ing eyes. Glow­ing is her smil­ing face with dim­ples.” This verse may be the most typ­i­cal de­scrip­tion of a beau­ti­ful woman through the Chi­nese lens, as these ex­pres­sive and vivid sim­i­les present beauty via an at­trac­tive car­riage and im­pres­sive charm.

It de­picts an ex­am­ple of per­fec­tion that ren­ders the suc­ces­sors less con­fi­dent. There­fore, how­ever bril­liant a poet Song Yu (319–298 BC) was, he could only praise a beauty liv­ing nearby as “A lit­tle longer would be too long while a lit­tle shorter too short. Blusher would be too much for her red, while pow­der is too much for her white.” While read­ing this equiv­o­cal verse, read­ers are not in any way in­tro­duced to the spe­cific beauty of the woman.

A sim­i­lar trick was adopted in

1 the Yuefu folk song about Luo Fu, a fa­mous beauty dur­ing the Han Dy­nasty ( 206 BC– 220 AD). “A passerby will stop, lay down his load and stroke his mus­tache, and

a plow­man will for­get to till his land upon en­coun­ter­ing Luo Fu.” How good-look­ing ex­actly was Luo Fu? We have no idea and are merely left with our imag­i­na­tions.

Beau­ties in an­cient fic­tion were of­ten de­scribed with plat­i­tudes such as “Her beauty makes fish sink and wild geese fall, she ob­scures the moon and out­shines flow­ers.” While the ex­ag­ger­a­tion goes to ex­tremes, the beau­ties de­scribed are still no more than ab­stract sil­hou­ettes.

It was not un­til the age of The Plum

2 in A Golden Vase and A Dream

3 of Red Man­sions that por­traits of fe­males be­came more con­crete, and thus en­able us to know that Lin Daiyu was slim while Xue Baochai was plump. Now, thanks to photography, movies, and TV, we are able to ap­pre­ci­ate beau­ties from around the world and ac­quire some per­cep­tual knowl­edge about them.

So, what kind of woman de­serves to be called a “beauty”? Cri­te­ria may vary in­di­vid­u­ally, al­though uni­ver­sally agreed upon stan­dards do ex­ist. A beau­ti­ful woman may be tall or short, plump or slim, but she must be well-pro­por­tioned in gen­eral. Of course there are ex­cep­tions. For ex­am­ple, in the King­dom of Tonga, be­ing over­weight is con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful. More­over, in some African tribes, women have tat­toos and nose rings—a quite dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on beauty. A beau­ti­ful woman may have a round or pointy face, large or small eyes, a high or low nose, a wide or nar­row mouth, blonde or dark hair, but these fea­tures must com­bine in har­mony. In other words, she should be in­of­fen­sive to the eye.

Women who meet the ba­sic re­quire­ments of be­ing in­of­fen­sive to the eye are a dime a dozen, how­ever. Par­tic­u­larly in a ma­te­ri­ally rich era with ad­vanced make-up, it is easy for most women to look good af­ter groom­ing them­selves. How­ever, if one is to se­lect a woman that is clas­si­fied as gor­geous from a group of beau­ties, it is not enough to sim­ply have a har­mo­nious ap­pear­ance and be pleas­ing to the eye.

On the con­trary, dishar­mony may work bet­ter in some cases. Or, to put it in another way, real beau­ties have dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. Fea­tures here do not re­fer to phys­i­cal im­per­fec­tions, but rather unique fea­tures, such as Gong Li’s ca­nine teeth or Sophia Loren’s big mouth and full lips. Ev­ery un­for­get­tably beau­ti­ful woman is at­trac­tive in her own way. Whereas the beauty eu­lo­gized by Song Yu in his poem, who is per­fect in all re­spects, can­not be con­sider as beau­ti­ful in terms of con­tem­po­rary aes­thet­ics.

In my ca­reer as a writer, I have read many lit­er­ary works. Those fe­male images that have left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on me are not those of


Diao Chan or Xi Shi, but the vixen sirens from the pen of Pu Songling, who was born in Shang­dong, my home­town. Laugh­ing or frol­ick­ing, each siren has her own dis­tinct per­son­al­ity. Fur­ther­more, all of them are oth­er­worldly and free from un­nec­es­sary for­mal­i­ties. They also have noth­ing to do with hypocrisy or af­fec­ta­tion, and they are fas­ci­nat­ing for their over­flow­ing glam­our. Just think about international su­per mod­els. Do their icy but en­chant­ing glances come across as be­ing hu­man? No—they are the glances of vix­ens or sirens.

Con­se­quently, I be­lieve that true beau­ties are hard to find in the world, and that they must keep away from house­work, such as cook­ing or sewing. I per­son­ally be­lieve that Yang Lip­ing, the pa­vane dancer,


could be on a par with Pu Songling’ s vixen siren. When danc­ing on the stage, she glows with a spell­bind­ing aura like a fairy, not in any way like a hu­man be­ing. Thus, her beauty, like all true beauty, is inim­itable and in­sur­mount­able.

( From What Is the Most Won­der­ful Smell, Nan Hai Pub­lish­ing Co. Trans­la­tion: Trans)

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